Ok. One more Stanley Kubrick post and then I’ll be done. I promise…
“Don’t you want to go where the rainbow ends?” – Louise Taylore, “Eyes Wide Shut”.
It’s been over ten years since the debut of Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” which means its time for the inevitable critical reconsideration. Almost all of Kubrick’s films have been panned upon release only to be heralded as extraordinary works of art in subsequent years.
True to form, upon its initial release, “Eyes Wide Shut” was dismissed by the majority of critics as a failure.
Kubrick himself, on the other hand, considered it his “most important contribution to the cinema”.
Allow me to join what I’m sure will be a cavalcade of retrospective praise.
“Eyes Wide Shut” is a masterpiece. It’s astonishing. If you’ll forgive what I’m sure is fanatic hyperbole, it is the first film in history to present a unified theory of everything.
Yep. That’s what I wrote. A unified theory of everything. (Now I will try my best to prove that but first I need to get one more broad statement out of the way.)
“Eyes Wide Shut” is a film you have to learn how to watch. It has more in common with a work of art, like a Rembrandt or a Picasso, then with the sexual thrillers or psychological thrillers it was initially compared with. (Chalk that up to film critics being too specialized, too mind-numbed from seeing movie after movie, that they sometimes fail to see the forest for the trees.)
When you understand how to watch the film, when you stop trying to follow a “plot” or dissect a mystery as if it were an episode of “Columbo” or “CSI”, when you see that following the overtures of plot are not nearly as important as investigating each individual scene and determining how it relates to the piece as a whole, then the film’s greatness is revealed.
In “Eyes Wide Shut” every moment is given equal weight. There are no throwaway lines or simple, expository dialogue. Everything matters. The small interactions with minor characters are just as important (if not more so) than the big crescendo scenes that everyone remembers (Nicole Kidman’s monologue about the naval officer and the masked orgy being the two most prominent).
Perhaps it’s best to illustrate this point with an example.
Early in the film Alice (Nicole Kidman) is dancing with a Hungarian man named Sander Szavost (Sky Dumont) at a Christmas party thrown by Victor Zeigler (Sydney Pollack), Dr. Bill’s (Tom Cruise) extremely wealthy patient.
They have this seemingly innocuous exchange:
Sandor: “What do you do, Alice?”
Alice: “Well, at the moment, I’m looking for a job. I used to manage an art gallery in SoHo. But it went broke.”
Sandor: “Oh, how sad. I have some friends in the art game. Perhaps they could be of some help.”
Alice: “Awww. Thank you.”
Throughout the film, we see plenty of Alice’s daily activity but we never see her doing anything remotely related to looking for a job. Mostly, she primps herself, combs her hair, puts on deodorant, makes herself beautiful.
Sandor’s offer to help Alice’s “career” is revealed, moments later, as part of a less-than-subtle negotiation for sex. Alice’s initial response seems genuine. She is touched by his offer to help. Once his true intentions are clear, however, Alice’s “awakening ” begins.
She appears troubled that night, staring melancholic in the mirror while Bill (Tom Cruise) fondles her breast. She goes through her daily routine the next day but at night she is once again staring forlornly in the bathroom mirror before reaching for a joint.
As she gets high, she becomes upset with her husband, which culminates in an angry, revelatory remark.
“Wait a minute. So, because I’m a beautiful woman, the only reason a man wants to talk to me is because he wants to fuck me? Is that what you’re saying?”
Contrary to what she told her dance partner the day before, Alice isn’t looking for a job. Alice has a job. Her job is to be a beautiful doctor’s wife. She is, in final analysis, not far from a prostitute.
Early viewers of “Eyes Wide Shut” saw it as a film about Bill’s awakening, as he journeys deeper and deeper into a dream world of sexual depravity. This is a false reading, or at least, an incomplete one. The film is about Alice’s awakening and Bill’s reaction to her rebellion. He is troubled because his “possession” is attempting to independently define herself. Bill never seems worried about his own desire for extramarital sex, or, for that matter, any male desire. He flirts with models shamelessly at the Christmas party and doesn’t bat an eye when he finds the party’s host, Victor Zeigler, upstairs with a naked and possibly dead prostitute.
He only becomes upset when his wife talks about her sexual desires.
All this discussion of sex, however, threatens to override a much greater theme in the film.
Remember the quote from the beginning of the article, “Don’t you want to go where the rainbow ends?”. Here is that exact exchange. It takes place at the Christmas party as two models are leading Dr. Bill toward a staircase.
Bill: “Ladies, where, exactly, are we going? EXACTLY.”
Nuwalla: “Where the rainbow ends.”
Bill: “Where the rainbow ends?”
Gayle: “Don’t you want to go where the rainbow ends?”
Bill: “Well that depends on where that is exactly.”
Gayle: “Let’s find out.”
“Let’s find out” “exactly” “where the rainbow ends”. That is the central concern of “Eyes Wide Shut”.
Bill and the models are interrupted by a request for Bill’s services upstairs. (The end of that scene mirrors an earlier scene. Bill’s conversation with the only person he knows at the party, Nick, the piano player, is interrupted as Nick is called away. The mirroring is intentional. Keep that in mind for later…)
Of course, we know from childhood where the rainbow ends. Or where it’s supposed to end. At a pot of gold. (Keep that in mind for later also…)
Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” is not about sex or fidelity Or, at least, it’s foremost concern is neither of those, surface level assumptions aside..
“Eyes Wide Shut” is about money.
In particular, the overwhelming effect of money on society, especially American society.
The “negotiation” mentioned above, between Alice and Sandor, is just one of many in the film. In fact, just about every scene in “Eyes Wide Shut” contains some form of financial or sexual negotiation. Often, the lines between the two become blurred. Sex becomes a stand-in currency.
Alice confronts him with her objectification. Bill is driven out of the home. Her confession of overwhelming desire for another man distinguishes her status as a possession and confounds Bill’s understanding of his social sphere. What follows are a number of encounters that serve the same purpose.
He encounters a prostitute, Domino (as in, the dominoes are falling), who invites him to “come inside”. (Bill parrots her, “Do I want to come inside” just in case you don’t get the double entendre the first time). Bill is visibly uncomfortable in her messy apartment. Just to highlight the “service” theme, Domino makes a joke. “Maids day off”.
Then they have the following exchange.
Bill: “So, should we talk about money”
Bill: “How much?”
Domino: “Well that depends on what you wanna do. What do you wanna do?”
Bill: “Well, what do you recommend?”
(P.S. At the risk of being impugned by my own argument, the girl who plays Domino, Vanessa Shaw, is really hot.)
Bill’s last question, “what do you recommend” is deliberately blatant and off-putting. Kubrick wants it to stand out. He is highlighting his main theme.
That theme, again, is an investigation into service and money.
In the next scene, Bill meets his piano player friend, Nick, in the East Village. We learn that Nick left his wife and kids in Seattle because “you gotta go where the work is”. In a subsequent scene, Bill negotiates with the Russian owner of a costume shop to buy a mask and cloak in the middle of the night. He offers $100 over the rental price, is turned down, and, bewildered, offers $200. (There is another pattern with the periphery characters besides the negotiations. Almost no one is from Manhattan. They have all come to The Big Apple for purposes of commerce. By the way, did you ever wonder why New York is called The Big Apple? Is it a reference to Adam and Eve?)
Later in that same scene, Millidge discovers that his young daughter is having a sexual escapade with two Chinese businessmen. He calls her a “little whore” and threatens to call the police. In the final act, we discover that Millidge has come to “another arrangement” with the men. He is now pimping his daughter out. The scene ends with the Russian offering his daughter’s “services” to Bill.
There are dozens of other financial exchanges and allusions to wealth and lack of wealth. So much of “Eyes Wide Shut” is devoted to negotiation and finance, it is a small wonder not one critic picked up it’s theme the first time around (as far as I know).
Bill rips a hundred dollar bill in half. He keeps one side and offers the other half to a cab driver. He tells him he will give him the remaining half if he waits for him outside the mansion where the masked ball is being held. If the implication of status in that action isn’t immediately apparent, consider what underlies it. Bill is so unconcerned with the $100 bill that he rips it in half before even starting his negotiation. The driver, on the other hand, is so in need of money, he is willing to wait for an indeterminate amount of time, in the middle of nowhere, at 3 am.
Moments later the tables are turned on Bill. The participants at the masked ball know he doesn’t belong because he arrived in a taxi rather than a limo.
Alice helps her daughter with her homework.
They read a question aloud. It is a math equation to determine which boy has the most money.
Even the sex orgy ends with a negotiation. One of the naked women appears to save Bill’s life, saying she is “ready to redeem him”. Bill assumes she is killed. We learn later, from Victor Zeigler, that “nothing happened to her that hadn’t happened a thousand times before. She got her brains fucked out. End of story.”
The masked ball, is, quite literally, the “end of the rainbow”. It is the first scene in the film without multi-colored Christmas lights in the background. The lights are everywhere else. Domino’s apartment, Bill’s office, The Harford’s home, the streets of New York. They are ubiquitous right up until the orgy. As with any late-era Kubrick film, the plot isn’t nearly has important as what surrounds the plot. (Take, for example, the Indian artwork and red, white, and blue motif splashed all over “The Shining” or the repeated patterns of behavior in “2001: A Space Odyssey” which suggest humans have become machines at the service of machines or the false narration that frames Barry Lyndon which calls deeply into question our “historical” record.)
When Bill returns home after the profound experience of the orgy, he switches off the Christmas lights on the family tree. His illusions have been shattered. He’s been to the end of the rainbow and been kicked out. He will never be allowed there.
In “Eyes Wide Shut”, the background and foreground have equal importance. They both serve to illuminate the theme of the blurred line between money and sex. By the end, the prominence and importance of money has evaporated and been replaced with a new, disturbing understanding of currency and it’s relationship to human sexuality.
Many have interpreted the climatic orgy scene scene as a realistic depiction of some kind of Masonic sex rite for the super wealthy. Those things may or may not exist but I’d like to offer the suggestion that the scene is largely symbolic. The question posed by the film, in total, is about the allure of money. That is, what is it that makes us want? Why are we so profoundly driven to acquire wealth, status, and power?
Kubrick’s answer is the sex party. It represents the unspoken assumption behind the attainment of wealth. Guilt-free satisfaction of every conceivable animal desire. The scene has the overture of religion because wealth and social standing have become a religion.
Bill has worked his whole life to climb the social ladder only to be told by his “friend”, Victor Zeigler, that he is “way out of (his) depth”. This statement comes while the two men stand in the parlor room of Zeigler’s mansion, surrounded by portraits of European nobility.
This scene best reveals the film’s “unified theory or everything”. It’s the reason Kubrick felt his film so important.
In a single shot, we are confronted with the entire history of human ambition and the barriers inherent. The wealth of European gentry was not attained. It was a birth right. The men staring down at Bill from the portraits would never considered him an equal no matter how much money or land he acquired through commerce. In fact, his form of financial attainment, (in other words, working) was frowned upon.
Sydney Pollack, as Zeigler, also stares down at the diminutive Bill. They are not equals.
Today’s America claims to have replaced the master/servant caste system with a paradigm based upon merit. The American Dream is to climb your way to the top, a la Horatio Alger.
But has anything truly changed? Bill is a “successful” doctor. By most standards, his societal position is enviable but the scene with Zeigler makes plain that he is as much “in the service” of the gentry as all the other lowly service professionals he is constantly encountering throughout the film. (This is a short list of them off the top of my head: two maids, a taxi driver, a limo driver, a concierge, a baby-sitter, a hired piano player, a waitress, a secretary, a receptionist, a teacher, dozens of prostitutes and hired security. The wealthy characters, Zeigler, Sandor, and Marion Nathanson, have no discernible occupation.)
Money and class are the essence of “Eyes Wide Shut”. Just like the Native American motif in “The Shining”, you can watch the entire film and not see it even though it’s right before your eyes. (Get it?) If “The Shining” was Kubrick’s “Heart of Darkness” then “Eyes Wide Shut” is his “The Great Gatsby”.
Just in case you’re still not convinced, consider the beginning and ending of the film.
The opening line is Bill’s. (Note his name. Bill.) “Have you seen my wallet?” Alice (her name is an allusion to Alice through the looking glass), of course, knows precisely where the wallet is. The film ends in a giant, overpriced toy store where their daughter Helena (named for the goddess of beauty) runs around suggesting Christmas presents for herself that include a Barbie Doll and a stroller for a female doll.
People who suggest that “Eyes Wide Shut” is an optimistic film about marriage, honesty and fidelity, are in my opinion, pretty far off. The film strikes me as deeply pessimistic, both about American society and humanity in general. In many ways, it is the anti-“2001: A Space Odyssey”. In that film, humanity evolves to a higher intelligence, represented by the star child. “Eyes Wide Shut” ends with a young girl destined to repeat the cycle which has caused her mother and father so much misery.
There is plenty more to investigate in “Eyes Wide Shut”. A single blog post written on the down time of my catering job can’t possibly do it justice.
I haven’t even touched upon the obvious “mask” theme in the film, or Alice’s pornographic dreams, or the effect of the constant dialogue parroting, or Bill’s doppelganger and possible “other life” represented by a teacher that has married into money, rather than earned it himself.
There are a couple great essays (and a ton of bad ones) available online. The Kubrick site is the best source for those. If you want to read a bunch of Masonic “conspiracy-theories” about the film, those are plentiful as well. There is also a book about the movie by Micahel Chion, although I can’t particularly recommend it. I found his analysis muddled, confusing, and largely unfounded. In fact, that book was the impetus for this essay. Believe it or not, I don’t generally sit around for hours writing film-crit for no money and no credit. But I really like Kubrick’s swan song and was so disappointed with Chion’s book that I felt the need to address the merits of “Eyes Wide Shut” on my own.
I hope I have a least perked your interest about “Eyes Wide Shut” and inspired you to give it a second chance. It wasn’t “the sexiest film ever made”, as an Entertainment Weekly teaser article suggested in November 1998, but it just might be one of the best!